The cheapskate's guide to printing

The cheapskate's guide to printing

Whether a printer costs $75 or $750, the purchase price is only the first item on the new list of ongoing printing expenses. Over time, buying the ink or toner and acquiring media (paper, envelopes, transparencies) will very likely make a far bigger impact on a customer’s wallet. These costs will vary depending on what they print, how much they print, and what kind of media used. Some expenses are unavoidable: Printing an 8 x 10 photo on premium, glossy paper will never be dirt cheap. Shaving cents off other kinds of printing, however, involves just a little thought, effort and advance planning. Read on for tips on how your customers can choose and use a printer wisely — or perhaps not at all in some cases.

Know before you buy

Saving money on printing starts (ideally) before you buy the printer. Before you begin researching new models, make sure that you’ll be getting the best printer for the types of documents you plan to produce. Once you start looking at specific models, make a point of checking the recommended print volume; if you typically print 100 pages a day, for example, don’t buy a printer that’s rated for 500 pages a month.

How much is that cartridge in the window?

Replacement ink or toner cartridge costs represent a major part of your long-term printing expenses. As we learned when we researched HP’s $US40 Deskjet 3520, replacing the cartridges can cost as much as buying the printer. In general, expect to pay $US10 to $US40 for an ink cartridge, and $US60 or more for a toner cartridge.

But don’t judge a cartridge by price alone; its efficiency, or page yield — the number of pages it can print — matters just as much. Of course, that figure will vary depending on how much ink you use on a page, but the industry-standard assumption is 5 per cent coverage per page for each colour. Some companies make yield information available on the Web along with other printer specifications; others will provide it if you ask, either by email or phone.

You can use yield information to calculate per-page costs, which can be useful in determining what your printing costs for different printers would look like over time. Laser printer toner cartridges may cost a lot more than ink jet cartridges, but their higher yields make per-page costs lower.

Some printer manufacturers offer multipacks of inks, which can knock a few dollars off the price per cartridge. The standard-capacity black ink for Dell’s $US79 J740 ink jet, for instance, costs $US30 alone; a two-pack is $US56.

A few colours more

Some inkjet printers produce superior photo quality by using additional colours beyond the usual cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. But all the colour cartridges may not come with the printer. For instance, Canon’s $US200 i960 printer is bundled with all six of its inks (including Photo Cyan and Photo Magenta), and they cost $US12 each to replace. But HP’s $US100 Deskjet 5150 includes only the standard HP 56 black and HP 57 tricolour cartridges ($US20 and $US35, respectively); the HP 58 photo cartridge is a separate, $US25 purchase.

The incredible, shrunken starter cartridge: Many lower-cost laser printers come with starter cartridges that last anywhere from 60 per cent to as little as 33 per cent as long as a regular cartridge. Granted, if you don’t print much, that first cartridge could last you a while; but if you know you’ll be printing at least 100 pages per month, either find a printer that comes with a full-size cartridge or factor in the cost of an early replacement. Of course, if you get a great deal on the printer, your overall cost may still be quite affordable.

The cheapest paper for the job: The heavier, brighter (whiter), or more specialised the paper is, the more it will cost. You’ll generally pay as little as a half-cent per page for typical, 9kg office paper, or as much as a dollar for an 8.5- x 11-inch sheet of glossy photo paper.

Save the pricey stuff for final prints; for everything else, use the cheapest paper you can find. It will affect the print quality from your laser printer minimally, if at all, and it will work fine for producing drafts and other internal documents on your inkjet printer. Third-party brands often cost less per page than the printer manufacturer’s media, but test inkjet-specific media on your printer to see if you like the results. You may have to buy a full pack to do this, unfortunately.

Cable not included: Some printer manufacturers save on costs by omitting the USB or parallel cable that you may need to connect the device to your computer. If you can’t use the same cable you had for your last printer, shop around: You don’t need the expensive models with gold connectors and heavy shielding unless you have a lot of interference in your work area from other devices.

Penny-saving printer settings

The printer you already own may have money-saving features built into it — simply take a few minutes to delve into its settings.

Sip, don’t slurp: Many have a button right up front that sets the printer to draft mode (sometimes called Economode, InkSaver, or the like), reducing the ink or toner consumption for everyday documents. Other printers may require or allow you to set draft-mode printing in the driver. To see if yours does, choose Start, Printers and Faxes in Windows XP (Start, Settings, Printers in Windows 2000). Right-click the icon for your printer and check the menu for Properties or an appropriately named option. You may have to search, but you should find a way to set draft printing. Many apps, such as Word or PowerPoint, let you select draft printing; some may be able to print in high-quality mode even when the printer is set for draft mode; check the app’s print dialog box. A utility that can help you save on ink or toner is Strydent Software’s $US35 InkSaver ( or, which provides you with an intuitive slider for controlling precisely how much ink to use while printing.

Print smaller: For years, presentation pros have printed multiple pages at a reduced size on one sheet of paper. This practice, known in the industry as n-up printing, also works well for saving paper. You can access this feature by right-clicking your printer icon and choosing Printing Preferences, which brings up a dialog box where you might also find a page-scaling feature that lets you squeeze a legal-size page onto letter-size paper.

Two utilities could help you squeeze more onto a single sheet: The first is the $US50 ClickBook 7 from Blue Squirrel. The other is the $US50 FinePrint 5 from FinePrint Software. Both of these products perform a multitude of printing tasks, from n-up printing and document scaling to print-job management, as well as the creation of layouts for brochures, calendars, greeting cards, business cards, and more.

Cheapskate tricks that work

Some of the best ways to control ink, toner, and paper costs are also the easiest.

Duplexing: Cut your paper expenses in half by printing on both sides of the page. Some offices equip their workgroup printers with automatic duplexers, and a few even set duplexing as the default print mode.

A handful of personal printers provide automatic duplexing (requiring no manual refeeding of the sheets) as a standard or extra-cost accessory, and some present a handy on-screen guide for turning and ordering the pages. Barring such features, only a patient soul should try manual duplexing for a multi-page document.

Do the toner slow dance: If your laser printer software says you are running low on toner, or if you start to see streaks in your printouts, you may still have plenty of toner left — but it’s stuck in the cartridge’s nooks and crannies. Remove the cartridge from the printer and slowly rock it end-to-end and then to-and-fro a few times. Do not shake it randomly or vigorously. Reinsert the cartridge into your printer. (Check your hands afterwards to make sure you don’t soil your clothes with toner.)

Digital photo tips

You can’t put a price on memories, but printing cherished family photos on an inkjet will definitely cost you. What are your options?

Third-party services: For your highest-resolution, most precious photos, it’s probably best to pay the high price for total control over the process from editing to printing. But for everyday shots, letting someone else print the photos (by either uploading your images to an online photo service or dropping off a CD or memory card at a store) is the easiest, and often cheapest, solution — especially for large quantities.

Find flaws and fix ‘em: Whether you’ve digitised a film photo or downloaded an image from your digital camera, checking for stray thumbs, red-eye, and other flaws before you print will keep you from wasting pricey photo paper. It also pays to preview photos before sending them to a print service; many major services also offer online editing tools.

The best quality is worth the money: When we partnered with the archivability experts at Wilhelm Research to test and rate inkjet-printed photos for longevity in The Fade Factor, we found that the manufacturer’s inks and papers generally produce the best-looking, longest-lasting prints. If you want to preserve photos for posterity, you may have to resign yourself to spending a little extra.

Take good care: Who wants to spend money reprinting a photo that’s faded or otherwise damaged? Make prints last by taking a few precautions. Henry Wilhelm of Wilhelm Research recommends framing displayed photos under glass and avoiding prolonged exposure to bright light sources. Even mild light exposure may eventually fade a print, however, so just to be safe, Wilhelm also recommends having a second copy in an album. Store redundant copies of your digital image files (in their highest resolution) somewhere safe, too.

Taking a chance on cheap

The sticker shock from replacing your first ink or toner cartridge naturally leads to a search for cheaper alternatives, such as third-party cartridges or refill kits. But proceed with caution.

When we tested several third-party inks last year, we found that they varied widely in print quality and were uniformly poor in archivability. Ink refill kits can get messy, and in our tests the print quality was mediocre at best. Continuous-ink systems — intravenous hookups from a printer to big bottles of ink — save money, but they require a large initial investment and involve other drawbacks.

However, director of the Center for Integrated Manufacturing Studies at the Rochester (New York) Institute of Technology, Nabil Nasr, said some third-party products were worthy of consideration. RIT, which ran yield tests for this story, works with printer manufacturers and third-party vendors to develop better ways to remanufacture, reuse, and recycle printer supplies. Nasr said some third-party inks fared well in RIT’s archivability tests; he recommended going with a known brand from a company that tests and guarantees its products. Staples, for example, backed its remanufactured ink and toner cartridges with a promise to pay for any damage caused by a defective cartridge.

Know more, save more

Printer vendors offer little guidance on pennywise printing.

Educate yourself and experiment. Visit newsgroups — try comp.periphs.printer, comp.laser-printers, or comp.periphs.printers — but exercise caution in trying out home remedies.

Regardless, if you stay aware of all of your printing options, your budget will thank you.

Technology face-off: The best and the cheapest

Part of printing smart involves using the right printer for the job. None of the major technologies — monochrome laser, colour inkjet, colour laser — is perfect for everyone.

Colour lasers offer the best balance of image quality and consumables cost, but only if your printing volume justifies the hefty purchase price. Inkjets offer low initial costs and the best photo quality, but ink and photo paper costs can rise quickly (photos will often require 100 per cent ink coverage per page). Workhorse monochrome lasers are best for offices of any size that want to print just text documents.

Ink jets: Printing with a light touch

An easy way to make inkjet cartridges last longer is to use your printer’s draft-mode setting. This lays down less ink on a page, saving as much as 50 per cent on the per-page printing cost. Your pages will look light (see draft, left, and normal samples below from the HP Deskjet 5150), but will be fine for quickly checking layouts or a Web page. Many printers offer a range of ink-saving options for a gradual trade-off between print quality and print speed.

Online services: Outsourcing photo printing

Tired of high ink costs for printing photos? Consider using an online photo service instead. They’re convenient, and they’re cheaper for printing 4 x 6 snapshots (though larger photos cost more than if you printed them at home).

We researched the costs of printing a 4 x 6 photo and an 8 x 10 photo on several photo service sites and compared them with the costs of printing the same-size photo on two current inkjets, Sieko Epson’s Stylus C84 and HP’s Deskjet 5150. (We based printing costs on vendor data, adjusted where necessary to reflect the assumption that a photo page will be covered 100 per cent with ink.)

We also found that it pays to shop around. To avoid shipping fees, use services which let you pick up your prints at a local store for free.

Bulk ink: feed the need, cheaply

For people who print hundreds of photos a year and need to maintain complete quality control (an online service won’t cut it), a continuous-ink system promises significant cost savings. But it requires a hefty initial investment and several adjustments to how you use your printer. And families, take note: These systems are too delicate to be exposed to curious kids or pets.

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